From Getting to Done to Getting to Happy (GTD applied to GTH)

September 8, 2008 by Jared Goralnick

The aim of productivity is to get things done.  A hope for day-to-day living is happiness.

Perhaps lessons-learned in productivity can be channeled into this day-to-day hope, helping us to “get to happy.”

I’m sitting aboard a plane just now, returning from a week in Crested Butte, Colorado.  I’m not in the best of spirits, even though nothing of consequence has gone awry.  With three hours before arriving in Baltimore, I have neither the energy nor the interest to work, listen to a podcast, or read.  In Getting Things Done (GTD) terms, my present context is not @flight—it’s @grumpy or perhaps even @complacent.

Getting Things Done & Contexts

In GTD, David Allen suggests that we group tasks based on circumstance, so that when we find ourselves in that circumstance, we can use our time wisely.  The classic example is to keep a running list of needed-groceries, so that when we go shopping we won’t forget anything.  More generally, we might have @computer, @phone, @errands, and other contexts.

But when I’m really frustrated I’m probably not going to learn Spanish in the car or call prospects at my desk, even if they’re on my lists.  In this case my mood or energy-level is more relevant than the other contexts.  Productivity can lead to happiness, but sometimes we need to fix our heads first.

Contexts for a State of Mind

If there were contexts related to states of mind, maybe we’d have a better chance of fixing our heads.  We may take an Advil for an ache but we don’t always remember what to prescribe when we’re down.

When I’m feeling complacent, writing helps.  And doing for others.  And the company of good friends.  And running.  Just now, writing and offering (what is perhaps) helpful advice to you is cheering me up.

A few weeks ago I talked about making lists of our friends.  I’ve long kept a list of “5-minute friends,” essentially people nearby enough that I can meet up with in roughly five minutes’ time.  If I’m hungry or wanting company or just looking to get out of the house, I’ll work through the list to see who might be around.

There are many things we can do to bring us out of a funk.  But when we’re down we’re often not very good at recalling solutions.  Perhaps it’s a person to call, breathing slowly, eating something healthy (or a big steak), taking a nap, being outdoors, doing something athletic, watching a particular movie, recalling a memory that puts things in perspective, etc.  Our fixes are different, but we all have them.

My Lists and Yours

I haven’t made many lists like this, though I’m considering more.  Maybe even just one long list that’s more universal for cheering me up.  I think our moods or energy-levels can change as often as our contexts, yet we often forget what to do about them.

Another way to think of this is as a knowledgebase for our selves, where we can store the lessons-learned for when we need them most. Or maybe it’s not that complicated.

I just think we have a lot to learn about how to get to back to good, and we ought to do anything in our power to make that easier.  Have you ever tried something like this?

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9 Responses to “From Getting to Done to Getting to Happy (GTD applied to GTH)”


  1. John B. Kendrick

    My quick way out of the funk is to read my Bible. God has a way of showing me things that I never saw before and that always excites me. I started using Nozbe for my GTD system earlier this year after decades of Covey and it allows me to view my entire GTD at work on my Win machine, at home on my Macs and even on my cell phone. And another app lets me call in tasks to my GTD without any writing or typing, great for those thoughts that hit me while driving. I’ve written about my experiences with GTD in a blog post at John

  2. Paul Singh

    “There are many things we can do to bring us out of a funk. But when we’re down we’re often not very good at recalling solutions.”

    As with most people (IMHO, anyways), the most common solution for me is to switch contexts or tasks when I’m in a funk. Bummed about what I’m working on? I’ll probably go cycling. Not making enough progress on a certain project? Time to go watch some TV.

    For me, the real problem is that I avoid acknowledging the funk for far too long. I’ll internally “chastise” myself for being lazy or just making excuses when I really am just “not in the mood” for whatever I’m doing.

    “I just think we have a lot to learn about how to get to back to good, and we ought to do anything in our power to make that easier.”

    Absolutely — in my case, I’ve chosen to list out the early warning indicators for detecting a funk before it’s too late. Though, when I step back and re-read it, the primary warning is that my productivity drops to near 0 — I’m going to start using that as my “funk-warning” and start getting back to good sooner rather than later.

  3. Bobby Rio

    I agree about context. Sometimes I can’t even get motivated to listen to a podcast too. I can relate completely.

    A couple things that get me out of a funk.

    Anchored State songs… I have a few songs that I’ve anchored to good moods. I play this songs whenever I’m completley happy and motivated (after a successful meeting, a good work out, getting laid, during vacations)

    Since I most often play these songs during motivated times… I’ve found that merely playing during periods of being down or bored… the songs will lift me back on to that feeling of inspiration I’m used to having when hearing the certain songs.

    Also, going to the gym tends to get me out of a funk!

  4. Jason Asbahr

    I started organizing my GTD in OmniFocus with contexts-as-mental-states over a year ago and it’s really made a difference! Phone, Office, or Errands weren’t nearly as useful as Processing Admin, Creative, Pitching, and other mental states my work requires. It feels like a major shifting of gears to switch between those mental states, so it’s important to organize related tasks together that way to minimize the context switch overhead.

  5. Jared Goralnick

    John, it’s really great that you’ve found a source you can always look to for getting through challenges.

    Paul, excellent point about changing contexts! I need to move on from unproductive things a lot sooner than I do, and an activity totally different is probably the best option.

    Bobby, I guess we all have songs like that…but we don’t often consciously work to use them when we need them. Like when I go running I have a “PowerSong” (as my Nike+iPod calls it), and I bet if I played that in the middle of the day it’d also get me motivated. I’m going to think through this and try to add some songs to my mood-related contexts.

    Jason, glad to get confirmation that this stuff works for you.

    Thanks for all the encouraging tips. I’m going to put this stuff to action.

  6. @Stephen Productivity in Context

    I keep what I call a ‘commonplace book’ for capturing inspirational quotes and other types of info. Whenever I notice that I am getting off track, I pull it out and consider one of them. Many of these are also recorded on the Friday Morning Zen channel at Productivity in Context.

  7. Jet Set Life

    Hey Jared,
    I think state management is one of the keys that we need to focus on here. Just sitting in a state of gratitude for a moment (@gratitude) and being truly grateful for everyone in your life, from your family all the way up to that plane you get to sit on, will almost instantly change your state. That being said, I previously used Omni Focus for GTD organization on both my desktop and iphone and had mixed feelings on it. I now use something called “Things” and find it uses the GTD concept in a very simple way without overdoing it too much. Watching Tim Ferriss get interviewed on GTD it was sort of interesting to me that he prefers a folded up square piece of paper with his top 2 or 3 mission critical items to complete in a day. Lots of options I suppose. The point is, use what works and let’s all be grateful for everything we have :)

  8. Sonia Simone

    About a year ago, I was in a very cranky space and took an index card and wrote UNHELPFUL across the top. Then I wrote down a bunch of unhelpful things, like letting “Little Me” (a term I ran across for the Buddhist notion of ego) call the shots, or gossiping about how much the day job pisses me off.

    On the other side, I wrote HELPFUL, and came up with things like sex, gardening, and working out that make me feel better.

    That index card sort of floats around on my desk. Sometimes it’s in my in box and sometimes it’s in a big tray I use for personal items and sometimes I use it as a bookmark in my Notebook Where I Write Stuff. I come across it every 3-6 weeks or so. I’ve found that really helpful for me–a way to remind myself on a somewhat random basis. I suppose I could also pop it into Outlook as a recurring event, but I tend to ignore those if I don’t feel they’re true hard commitments.

    I’m also seriously considering an @braindead context. Sometimes you really really need a list of things you can do with no brain cells whatsoever.

  9. Jared Goralnick

    Stephen, that’s a great idea. Little gems we’ve found in time past really can cheer us up :-).

    Jet Set Life, I don’t hear you about @gratitude. I was reminded of this recently by a dear friend…and have since been trying to eat a little slower, and to stop to “smell the roses.”

    Sonia, I like the idea of using those sorts of ideas as a bookmark…as something that floats around. Usually the scraps I find offer little helpful value. As for @braindead, I’m going to take Paul’s lead and say “put off whatever you have to do and go do something fun or rest or whatever”–i.e., switching contexts is often the only satisfying option.

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